“City of God” at 20 and My Journey to Brazil (Brazilian Gringo)

Tranquility from the chaos

“Why Brazil?”

It’s the second most common question I get asked (“Where are you from?” is the first) when people discover I’m a gringo. I always chuckle and try to find the most succinct answer; even after nearly 3.5 years in São Paulo I’m still uncertain what is the *right* answer to this question. I list the most obvious reasons: my companion convinced me to move here, I wanted a bold new adventure, and my previous dream of working and living in the UK crashed and burned. Things just lined up in the right way at the right time.

But there was something deeper. My mum spent a formative part of her childhood in South America, so I always saw the region as someplace both familiar and mysterious. I was the nerdy little boy who obsessed over history and geography and from a young age I knew Brazil was a country I wanted to visit. Why? “Because it’s the biggest nation in South America!” was my triumphant answer when I was 6 years old. But I can pinpoint the exact moment when my interest in Brazil tipped toward a deep curiosity and later became a deep love. That was when I saw the 2002 classic Cidade de Deus (City of God) for the first time.

Debuting 20 years ago today at the Cannes Film Festival, the film became global critical darling. Brazilian cinema is often under-appreciated, in my view, and the nation is lucky to have one or two films a decade that manage to get some attention in the Anglosphere movie critics’ circles. 1998 saw the success of Central Station and Fernanda Montenegro’s historic Academy Award nomination (she was the first Latina to receive a Best Actress nomination and, as of 2022, the only Brazilian actor to receive an Oscar nomination for performance); 2003 saw the surprise success of City of God. Now, the film was never going to be a success in the same way that Like Water for Chocolate (swoony magical realist romance) or Life is Beautiful (laugh-through-your-tears WWII tragicomedy) were successful. But for a film all about the predominantly Black and Brown residents of one of the most notoriously violent favelas (shantytowns) in Rio de Janeiro, that it managed to cast such a long shadow over Brazilian cinema, Latin American cinema, and action/crime cinema in general speaks for itself.

The film begins with a kinetic shot of a knife being sharpened, food being grilled, and a chicken who pecks away at the string that anchors his foot. Soon the chicken is free from one form of imminent death but is soon chased by Zé Pequeno (Leandro Firmino), a terrifying local drug lord, and his loyal recruits. At the same time, sweet and observant Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues) is walking down a nearby street, talking with one of friends about landing a photography opportunity for a major newspaper. As he is a resident of the favela, he has access the other newspaper photographers don’t have. The chicken crosses paths with Buscapé, who catches the eye of Zé Pequeno, who orders him to catch the chicken. Naturally, it’s not so simple: as Buscapé tries to get close to the chicken, a rival gang appears. Guns are drawn, Buscapé is caught in the middle and as the camera swirls around him, the pale chilly blues transform into warm golden hues and suddenly we are back at the beginning: his childhood in the 1960s.

In a refreshing twist, the flashbacks to Buscapé’s upbringing do not indulge in a maudlin “lost paradise” sentimentality. It’s clear that this region of Rio was one of daily small crime and violence from the start. The locals are all poor (many newly arrived to the region from even more impoverished parts of the country) and sequestered from the more affluent regions of the city. Opportunities are scarce; Buscapé’s older brother Marreco (a nickname for a common type of duck) and his friends scrap by with frequent robberies of delivery drivers and small business owners. A pint-sized psychopath Dadinho (Zé Pequeno as a child, played with searing ferocity by Douglas Silva) encourages the young men to think bigger; a motel robbery would be far more profitable. The plan soon ends in a bloodbath and sets the tone for where the film, and the favela itself, will go: the brutality and pressure steadily builds as Dadinho becomes Zé Pequeno, who along with his dear friend Bené, is determined to build his empire.

From there the film, based on the sprawling novel by Paulo Lins (a former resident of Cidade de Deus; his book will be covered in a future instalment of this column), which itself had several loose real-life connections, spirals and fixates not only on the life of Buscapé but the many other residents who call this favela home. Screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani has the narrative float from one event to the next with brilliant, seemingly effortless ease and insight. He never loses sight of the central story involving Buscapé, who also serves as the film’s narrator, but shows how the seemingly unrelated subplots, such as an incredible sequence that outlines the history of a small apartment over the years, figure into the bigger portrait of this region, its culture, and the locals. Mantovani’s adaptation is brought to dazzling life by the exuberant and thoughtful direction of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, the propulsive editing wizardry of Daniel Rezende and the sumptuous and dazzling cinematography from César Charlone. The film, shot on location in the Cidade de Deus favela, has an insider’s giddy knowledge; Lund’s previous documentary, News from a Personal War, about the daily lives of the favela residents, gave the filmmakers unparalleled access to a part of Brazil many are all too eager to forget or ignore.

As a technical achievement, City of God is sublime; an enormously gripping crime epic that feels propulsive throughout its 130-minute running time. If the film where only interested in being slick entertainment, it would be one of the finest achievements of style over substance.  However, it’s the film’s actors who give this masterpiece is vivacious, deeply humanistic soul. The vast majority of the cast were found in the favelas, had no professional acting experience, and with the specific, patient help of Lund and Meirelles gave performances that are so fresh and alive that they feel like full embodiments of their characters. Matheus Nachtergaele, who plays the rival drug dealer Cenoura (“Carrot”), was the most established actor in the cast, while Alice Braga (niece of the iconic Sônia Braga) and the beloved singer Seu Jorge make their film debuts. Many of the actors who find some degree of later success, such as Douglas Silva, who would become an International Emmy nominee for the TV series City of Men (which will also be covered in a future column).

Of all the many spectacular performances in the film, I want to give special praise to the work of Silva and Firmino, who portray the child and adult versions of Zé Pequeno with ruthless, volcanic intensity. In lesser hands, a character like Zé Pequeno/Dadinho could have been a hammy, tooth-gnashing caricature. There’s certainly a magnetic exuberance in these actors’ performances, two of the finest acting debuts I’ve ever seen. In a fair universe, both actors would have been Oscar winners for their sublime work. One particular thing that makes these performances so strong is a lack of flamboyance in how they capture Zé Pequeno/Dadinho’s essence. To make this character flamboyant is to give him an inappropriate “heroic” quality. If the film had a campy, stylized edge like Scarface, that would be one thing. But the things that Zé Pequeno/Dadinho does, the sheer malicious glee when he’s committing mass murder (as a child) or, in what is probably the film’s most infamous scene, forcing a small child to shoot another small child in the head (as an adult), it’s all so chillingly repulsive that to make this character “likeable” could easily sink the film.

Dadinho and his choice of amusement: mayhem
Zé Pequeno, now fully grown

The character these two actors portray is also, in its own peculiar way, a reflection of the film’s controversial reputation: the ever-persistent debate regarding what subjects are mined for entertainment and whether they should be in the first place. One of the more surprising things I learned after I moved to São Paulo was how much of the film had become fodder for memes. Well, that wasn’t *terribly* surprising; this country literally has a Museum of Memes. But a dear friend of mine said that a lot of what Zé Pequeno says is greeted with huge laughter, especially from people who have grown up in similar favelas or neighborhoods. It was fascinating that a character who I regard as one of the greatest, most disturbing villains in cinematic history could be seen in a comic light. But the familiarity that comes with knowing (or, more hopefully, having heard of) real people like Zé Pequeno and the other gangsters… sure, I can see why that could spark a certain type of laughter. Even amongst the horrors a certain bitterly caustic wit will still thrive.

This leads the broader, more thorny discussion: is the film a searing, heartfelt look at life on the margins or an MTV-style glorification and exploitation of violence and human suffering? In Roger Ebert’s ecstatic review, he writes, “’City of God’ does not exploit or condescend, does not pump up its stories for contrived effect, does not contain silly and reassuring romantic sidebars, but simply looks, with a passionately knowing eye, at what it knows.” In Lisa Schwarzbaum’s positive but notably cooler review of the film she remarks, “there’s also an unnerving whiff of sexy grooviness and gangsta-wise equanimity coming off the imagery and filmmaking, with its kinetic moonwalks between eras, its palette of deep crimsons, and its seductive soundtrack.” There’s truth to both perspectives. When I showed the film to a friend of mine, he remarked “the film is fantastically made, but it shouldn’t be *so* entertaining.” Now, the merits of violence and human ugliness being used for cinematic art and entertainment has been talked about for decades and will no doubt continue to be discussed for decades to come. To frame City of God as some Rorschach test in the “aetheticization of violence” feels unimaginatively reductive. A much more interesting and revealing topic of discussion is how does the viewer’s background inform *what* (if anything) they get from this particular work. 

Certainly, a lot of people had powerfully enthusiastic reactions to this film. The success of City of God in the festival circuit led to a surprisingly long run in boutique (aka “arthouse”) cinemas, topped off with four genuinely surprising, incredibly well-deserved Academy Award nominations. Fernando Meirelles received a Best Director nomination (a decision not without some controversy), Bráulio Mantovani got a Best Adapted Screenplay nod (the first Brazilian and the first Latin American individual in general to receive such an honor), while Daniel Rezende and César Charlone received attention in the Best Editing and Best Cinematography categories. These nominations are particularly satisfying given that the film was passed over the previous year when it was submitted for Best Foreign Language Film (Now “Best International Film”). Tragically, the film missed out on making the shortlist for Best Picture and would walk away empty-handed at the ceremony itself (it was the year of The Return of the King and there was no stopping it). I’ll argue that the film should have won in every category, but there’s no denying that the film’s nominations were a victory in their own right. The film set a new standard, not only for action direction, but also what kind of stories could be told about Brazil, Latin America, and the general lives of the downtrodden and ignored in society. The influence of City of God can be seen in films like the Elite Squad series, the Mexican thriller Days of Grace, social realist dramas like Linha de Passe, Sócrates, and Chop Shop, and Netflix series like Narcos.

With a legacy like this, it’s easy to forget that the film’s success did not extend with perfect luck to everyone involved. As noted in the 2012 documentary City of God – 10 Years Later, several of the actors also faded back into obscurity after the film’s success. Poverty, institutional racism, violence, and the general lack of opportunities created of a lost generation of potential amazing performers. This phenomenon is nothing new (see also: Pixote, Slumdog Millionaire, Fish Tank, etc), but a reality worth acknowledging.

I was 12 when I first became aware of City of God. I was in Minneapolis, walking through Uptown when I saw the poster. A certain effortless cool oozed from the one sheet: the top half depicting the back of Alexandre Rodrigues as he stars toward the sea while Alice Braga plants a kiss on his cheek, the lower half an array of gangsters armed to the teeth. It looked so unlike any film, especially any *foreign* film, I had seen. The film’s reputation for brutal violence also guaranteed that my parents wouldn’t let me see the anytime soon. It took another year or two before I finally had the opportunity. It was one of those truly transformative cinematic experiences for me: I felt propelled to another part of the world, a place so dissimilar from where I was from and yet… so oddly familiar, too. For all the death, for all the poverty and hardship and brutality these characters experience, there is a vibrancy, the sheer force of nature that makes life itself so unpredictable and thrilling. My life, thankfully, was never harrowing like the characters in City of God. But I related and still do relate to them so deeply. Their dreams, their laughter and resilience and yes, their dogged hope in face of incredible challenge moved me like few films ever had or ever will.

Revisiting the film now that I live in Brazil, I worried if what seemed so extraordinary would now seem more drab or unremarkable. To my enormous relief and satisfaction, that wasn’t the case. Certain aspects of the film feel more intimate and familiar (the favela’s residents being exasperated with the daily petty crimes being particularly relatable), but the overall artistry of the work itself still grips and transports me with that effortless ease like it did all those years ago. City of God is my third favorite film; only Mulholland Drive and Princess Mononoke rank higher. It’s my favorite live-action film not in English, my go-to recommendation for anyone wishing to explore (non-animated) cinema beyond the US and UK. It’s a film that encouraged my own budding interest in sociology and anthropology (the subjects of my Bachelor’s degree). It’s a film that made me want to know Brazil better: its history, culture, people, and stories.

For all of that, I’m eternally grateful.

O Brasil, te amo

****

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Welcome to The Brazilian Gringo, an ongoing column about life, pop culture, politics, and history in Brazil from the perspective of a permanent resident who has lived in the country for three years and counting. If you have any suggestions for subjects you’d like to see covered in future articles, let me know in the comments!